Greater Midwest Foodways Alliance
FAMILY HEIRLOOM RECIPES
Illinois State Fair
August 12, 2016
(Image by Peter Engler)
Amy Wertheim, Atlanta, Illinois
Like all good family feuds, this one goes back several generations, but it also has ties across an ocean, thru several countries and political unrest, as well as social economic levels. Its white vs green – and you get to help to decide once and for all, which color is the winner.
I’m sure you’ve heard the expression, dirt poor. Well that is what my mother’s relatives were when they first came to America shortly after World War I. The real irony of their union is that neither of my great¬grandparents knew one another when they boarded their ship transports in England and made their way here; but yet, they both ended up working on a rather large agriculture farm in central Iowa. My great-grandfather, Paul, was a field hand, learning the rules of the land and hog farming; my great¬grandmother, Annetta, was a house maid and primary keeper of the owners’ children, who could be quite unruly. It was the children’s ill behavior that brought the two together one afternoon as the children “escaped” and hid from Annetta in the farm’s asparagus patch. Oh the damage they did, breaking off stalks and trampling them. Paul was the first to discover the little minks, and promptly returned them to the house, where Annetta took them quickly in hand, but the damage was done. And in the Midwest of the Unites States, there is but a small window of opportunity to have fresh green asparagus … and now it was gone, literally trampled into the ground. Paul, not wanting to see Annetta in trouble, quickly released several cows and sounded the alarm; although the farmer and his wife were not happy with the damage done by the “cows”, all was forgiven because those darn cows were always finding a way to get out and cause problems …
The farmer & his family salvaged what they could, making the usual asparagus casseroles, pies, pickled varieties and soups to put up for the lauder for later meals and winter dinners. No one was ever the wiser for the children involvement and Annetta soon looked at Paul in a whole new light, as her hero and someone who would protect her always. They were married soon after and moved to Emden, IL where a large population of Germans had chosen to settle. The town of Emden reminded Annetta of her home, Emden, Germany, and they soon were able save enough to purchase a small farm and start a family of their own. However, it wasn’t too long before the original status of dirt poor took on a whole new meaning (see pic of two girls in the chicken yard). Times were hard entering in the middle 1930’s and they struggled to keep their farm, raise a family and keep the children clothed. But the one constant on the farro, was the asparagus bed that Annetta lovingly tended, as this was the binding tie between her and Paul.
Nothing went to waste on the family farm, as the oldest daughter, Margaret, was in charge of the chickens …. After killing, plucking and cooking the chicken, the broth was always reserved for use in the special a~paragus soup Annetta would make and preserve for those special family dinners. Every Thanksgiv’ing and Christmas, Annetta would serve this special dish (see pic of two girls in front of dinner on dining table) and all couldn’t wait to eat it – it truly was the highlight of the meal, as Paul would recount the story of the children/cows that brought them together thru the ruined asparagus patch.
On the other side of the ocean, life wasn’t so difficult money-wise, but politically things couldn’t be worse. My father’s relatives had been encouraged for quite some time to leave Germany, even Europe, all together, but only the oldest boy, Elias, had made the journey to America many years prior. Those still in Germany soon were facing deportation to the camps and all but a very few would survive the war and Hitler. Elias was desperate for news of his family, but even his uncle in Vermont could offer no informatiQn or hope. It would seem, the entire family was gone; and he only had a handwritten volume of recipes and stories provided by his mother that she had given him before he left as his only link to the past. His new bride, Frances, tried to ease his pain by making many of the favorite recipes his mother had provided to him; his primary favorite being a Spargelsuppe, or white asapargus soup. White asparagus is quite common in Gemany, but not so in the United States. But Frances would not be deterred; she ordered special shoots to grow to make sure to always have plenty of the vegetable on hand to make for Elias whenever he was feeling especially low.
As inferred, my great-grandparents were on opposite political sides during the Great War, WWII. My mother’s family were German and would receive Nazi propaganda sent to them from their relatives in the homeland which my great-grandmother would quickly bury in the back yard. America had changed their perspective, slightly, on others … but their fear of discovery of supporting the Nazi party had primarily to do with the pink book my great-grandmother had to carry. She had not yet passed her citizenship test and should anyone ask during the war, she had to immediately produce this as identification; she could have been taken and interned at any time for no reason. My father’s relatives however were Jewish and well, as prior to the war and still after, they are the most persecuted entity in history ….
Many, many years passed and each family raised their family, the second generation, to remember the past — relatives still living and those lost, their traditions and even the recipes that tied them to their homeland. But soon it came to pass, that the two families lives would cross and become ever intertwined. The granddaughter of Annetta & Paul would fall in love and marry the grandson of Elias and Frances. All seemed to go well, until that first Thanksgiving …
As the newlyweds attended their first big family dinner at Annetta & Paul’s home, the traditional (green) asparagus soup was brought out and served. The granddaughter was excited to have her groom hear the love story of her grandparents … but her groom was confused, why was the asparagus soup green? And it had strange flavor to it – asparagus soup should be white, have a “clean” ungreen taste and be served slightly cooled. The new bride was hurt that her groom wasn’t enamored of the family’s soup of honor, but she didn’t really think much of it at the time, because well, she was in love.
The next Thanksgiving meal was at the grandparents of the groom; and yes, you guessed it, Spargelsuppe (white asapargus soup) was served. The groom was excited to share his family’s tradition of serving Sparelsuppe with his new bride along with many of the other Jewish dishes, which were quite full of flavor, for you see the purpose of the Spargelsuppe is to clean and cleanses the palate for the next course. The bride was not enamored of this family’s soup either … but the groom was in love so although he noticed, he didn’t seem to care.
Along about spring, both the groom and the bride began to get excited – each for the picking of the asparagus at their respective family farms. And again, each were surprised to find an asparagus patch of differing color, green & white. Well, the honeymoon although not quite over, was past its infancy and each made their feelings known, quite loudly and firmly as the story goes, about the oddness of the other’s a~aragus. The bride was especially upset because she was hoping to plant a bed of green asparagus at their new home – “absolutely not,” declared the groom, “it is white or nothing.” And so they that each planted their own asparagus beds, harvested and preserved them. They even took to including their children in growing of the asparagus (see man and young child preparing the soil for the new bed) …
But as each year passed, and each family served their own version of the asparagus soup, the discussions would often lead to loud and terse conversations – the extended family often bringing in each other’s heritage & religion, for you see even though it was now 30 years past the war, feelings still ran deep and strong. Both sides of the family would even try to bring the children into it though they wisely would never admit to liking one soup over the other … and neither the bride nor the groom ever took a liking to the others soup. And neither ever made it for the other.
Now with the 4th generation joining in the preparation of the asparagus beds (see young boy with wheelbarrow) there is only bed that remains …. The white asparagus isn’t a hardy plant in this part of the world; it’s more suited to the forests of Germany or the hills of Peru. The green asparagus bed however, planted in the middle 1930’s, still thrives to this day. It’s a thing of legends with many of the tenant farmers in the area with many wishing they could pick from the bed, but only family is allowed to gather from it – there’s even one tenant that is referred to as “Asparagus Bob”, because he is so persistent in trying to gather from it and being caught every year; but the rule stands – only family, never anyone else.
So I invite you to enjoy the two soups; green is more of what people consider a true asparagus soup; the white is less “flavorful” but provides a clean, cleansing taste …. And we ask you to decide on which really is the better soup – and we won’t tell, because the ensuing discussion is more than most would want to endure.
Spargelsuppe – White Asparagus Soup
Amy Wertheim, Atlanta, Illinois
1/2 cup chopped white onion
2 tablespoons butter
1-1/2 pounds white asparagus, peeled & cut into 2-inch pieces
6 cups chicken or vegetable broth
1/2 cup heavy whipping cream
salt and pepper to taste
Prepare the asparagus: white asparagus must be peeled, similar to a carrot to remove the woody flesh. Be sure and peel prior to cutting into 2-inch pieces. Reserve some tips for garnish. Set aside.
In a large soup pot, melt the butter over medium heat. Add the onions and saute until soft, approximately 4 minutes. Add the asparagus (but not the tips) and continue to saute until the asparagus and onion are tender, about 3-5 minutes. Add the broth and cook for 30 minutes until the asparagus is soft and pliable.
Remove the soup from the stove after it is done simmering & puree the soup until smooth and then return it to the pot. Add the heavy whipping cream salt and pepper to taste. If the soup has cooled too much, heat on high, stirring until the soup is as hot as you like. Serve with the reserved asparagus tips.
Note: This is not a big batch of soup – this recipe was for 4 people as it was served between courses to cleanse the palate; however for a single course meal only, if the are other side dishes like bread and salad it would be enough. My grandparents were known to sometimes add a splash of white wine for a little kick (acidity).
Yield: Serves 2-4
Simple Asparagus Soup
Amy Wertheim, Atlanta, Illinois
1 tablespoon butter
1 pound asparagus
2 tablespoons flour
1/8 teaspoon pepper
1 cup milk
1 teaspoon lemon juice
salt and pepper to taste
3/4 cup onion, chopped
1 tablespoon butter
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 3/4 cup chicken or vegetable broth
1/2 cup plain yogurt *
1/4 cup Parmesan cheese, + some for garnish
Prepare the asparagus: snap off the woody ends. Chop off the tips and set aside. Chop the remainder into 1/4 inch pieces. Set aside.
In a large pot, melt the butter over medium heat. Add the onions and saute’ for 2 minutes. Add the asparagus (but not the tips) and continue to saute’ until the asparagus and onion are tender, about 3-5 minutes.
In a small bowl, combine flour, salt, and pepper. Using a wooden spoon, to move the veggies to the side of the pot. Melt 1 tablespoon butter on the clear side of the pot; add the flour mixture and whisk it together to make a paste while keeping the veggies on the other side of the pan. Cook the mixture for about a minute, then add the broth in small increments, whisking between each addition. Whisk out any lumps. Add the milk and combine. Bring the mixture to a boil, then reduce to a simmer. Simmer for about 10 minutes.
Meanwhile in a small saucepan, add 11/2 cups water and 1/2 teaspoon salt. Bring to a boil over high heat. When it is at a rolling boil, add the reserved asparagus tips. Cover and cook for 2 minutes. Immediately drain in a colander and rinse with cold water to stop the cooking process. Set aside.
Remove the soup from the stove after it is done simmering & puree the soup until smooth** and then return it to the pot. Add the yogurt, lemon juice, and Parmesan and any additional salt and pepper to taste. If the soup has cooled too much, heat on high, stirring until the soup is as hot as you like. Serve with the reserved asparagus tips and shredded Parmesan.
Note: this was often made and preserved for future meals so the batch isn’t a large one. Easily doubled or tripled depending on the people needing to serve.
* Heavy cream was originally used; I like the yogurt for a lighter flavor. ** We prefer it not completely smooth so the soup as some texture to it.
Yield: Serves 2-4